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What is wrong with Mitchell Johnson?

A year ago, Mitchell Johnson was a name the world feared. Today, he's not even the most important Mitch in the Australian side. What exactly has gone wrong and can he reclaim his old self at the semi-finals facing India?

Mitchell Johnson
Mitchell Johnson’s spell will be crucial to Australia’s chances against India

A little over a year ago, Mitchell Johnson was synonymous to a thunderstorm you’d prefer not to get in the way of. The English were rattled beyond repair. The South Africans were battered in their own backyard. The Australian juggernaut looked ruthless and a man called Mitch whose machismo was fast turning a cricketing lore was at its forefront.

Not even the best Mitch in the team

Fast-forward a year. Australia are in the middle of a home World Cup, firm favourites to claim the title and as odd as it may appear, Johnson is not even the most important Mitch in the team. So, what exactly has gone wrong? Is he merely struggling with rhythm and form and is only a matter of time before he reclaims his menacing self? Is he finding it hard to adjust his lengths on the surfaces that have been anything but kind to the bowlers? Or did we just read too much into an extended purple patch and overestimate his ability to deliver goods more consistently?

For starters, Johnson is one of the few fast bowlers whose effectiveness across the two major formats does not greatly differ. He hasn’t been the most consistent threat in either format over a long period of time but has instead had a few staggeringly good peaks. His career numbers too reflect on his similar influence over both formats, unlike some of his contemporaries. Take Dale Steyn for instance. The South African is unarguably the best bowler of the modern era and has reserved himself a place in the history books alongside the all-time greats of the game.

However, there’s a clear preference in his game for Test cricket and he’s chosen to make himself limitedly available for the other formats. Of course, Steyn’s ODI numbers are too good for most to match but that has more to do with him being a once in a generation cricketer. His impact in ODIs certainly diminishes when compared to the extraordinary things he tends to do at will in Tests. Yesterday’s game was one more proof.

In contrast, Mitchell Starc, the man who’s reduced Johnson to being the second most talked about Mitch in town, is already billed for greatness in ODI cricket after his stupendous performances in the current World Cup. But the moment Starc puts on his whites, he’s nowhere near as effective.

Difference between ODIs and Tests

From the difference in field-placing to the red cherry behaving very different from the white ball, there could be an array of reasons explaining a fast bowler struggling to master bowling in both formats simultaneously. But that’s not the case with Johnson as the numbers attest and hence there’s every reason to believe he must come good in ODIs too with the kind of rhythm he has been in over the last one year and a half.

Sure, he’s been used selectively in ODIs during the period but one must not forget he had spent the season preceding the Ashes playing only 50 overs cricket, which helped him make a strong case for a return to the Test side. The argument therefore of him not being suited to the format doesn’t add up and his ongoing struggle demands more scrutiny.

Two back-to-back series defining performances trouncing both England and South Africa had understandably put Johnson on a different pedestal and naturally he was expected to be at his menacing best every time he took to the field from then on.

The next thing he faces is the scorching dry heat in the UAE. Johnson played the lead in the Australian pack playing two Test matches against Pakistan. Neither the wickets nor the playing conditions in Asia make it to an Australian cricketer’s dream. The placid surfaces make for exhaustive afternoons under the unforgiving sun; much more so for a tall fast bowler aiming to extract some bounce off the track.

In all four innings Pakistan played, they ensured the Australian bowlers were drained to the last drop of their sweat and skipper Michael Clarke wasn’t at the luxury of using his ace bowler judiciously. The spinners proved to be toothless and Johnson was forced to do a far bigger share of bowling than he’d have liked. The result of the series only made things worse.

How India tackled Australia

But that was expected to be a matter of distant past as Australia returned home to start what was going to be one big, testing summer. A four-Test series against India is where Clarke’s men were supposed to be at their absolute ruthless best and add to their visitors’ agony as poor travellers. Win, Australia did but it was nowhere near as pronouncing as it was imagined to be.

The Indians were not to be bullied by Johnson’s intimidating action, his pace or even by his snarling stares. Led by the superstar Virat Kohli, the visitors were firm at giving it back – both in action as well as verbally. One of the key reasons for Johnson’s success in the previous series was because batsmen showed a propensity to hang on the back-foot anticipating a bouncer of vicious strength.

Mitchell Johnson Virat Kohli
Can Mitchell Johnson get one over Virat Kohli?

Unlike most bowlers, a bouncer is a stock ball for Johnson and the fear psychosis that pushed the batsmen back in their crease did them in against the occasional fuller ones. But taking no cue from the English or the South Africans, the Indians didn’t play to Johnson’s reputation and showed no reluctance whatsoever in drawing their feet forward against him.

Indeed, the completely un-Australian nature of the wickets barring the one at Brisbane meant Johnson often cut a frustrated figure at the lack of bounce and high carry that he so prefers. His series numbers were atrocious by his standards and the Indians delivered a very important message to the rest of the world – that Johnson need not be feared.

Flat wickets not helping Johnson

The wickets have apparently been even flatter at the World Cup than they were in the Test series and Johnson’s impact has further been reduced, although the numbers may not be entirely lamentable. His pace hasn’t dropped in yards, but the intensity certainly has. Another aspect that merits concern is his role in the current bowling setup. Starc is the leader of the attack and given his ability to move the ball in and take it away from the right-hander with utmost accuracy makes him the obvious contender for the new ball.

Josh Hazlewood brings control and adds variety pairing with the left-armer Starc. Johnson’s primary strength is not swing and is often dealt with easily when he pitches it up. Going by how Clarke has used him so far, the captain asks holding up an end of Johnson – a role he may not be the most comfortable doing but has done a fair job of.

Defending a paltry total against New Zealand, in an avoidable act of bravado, Clarke offered the new ball to Johnson and that didn’t turn out quite well. He’s been deployed as the first change since, but for the game against Sri Lanka where Australia did not play with three front-line seamers.

Sri Lankan opener Tillakaratne Dilshan showed no mercy the moment Johnson began pitching it up and a flurry of boundaries followed forcing Clarke to introduce an early change. Thankfully, the scoreboard pressure was too much for the islanders to mount any serious pressure on the hosts but another such reckless over in a knockout encounter could swing the game away from Australia.

Can Johnson get the better of Kohli?

Johnson will once again be among the newsmakers as Australia gear up for the much-awaited semi-final contest facing the reigning champions. The two teams do have a history between them and Mitch hasn’t exactly won friends in the Indian dressing room. Kohli’s vociferous verbal attack in the press during the Melbourne Test last year is not a thing of forgotten past, no matter how much do the players pretend to have put things behind them.

Johnson will want to settle the scores and he couldn’t have asked for a bigger occasion. The Indians so far this summer have played him with some swagger and have demonstrated utter disdain for his reputation. But the moment he begins to deliver some chin music, he will successfully start to create doubts in their minds. And once that happens, few bowlers in the world are nearly as fearsome to face as Mitchell Johnson.

One spell dismantling India’s middle-order might win him back the cult that went frenzied over him a year ago. Imagine if it also includes Kohli’s scalp.

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